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Car reviews - Honda - Jazz - VTi-S 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Packaging, performance, equipment, handling
Room for improvement
Price, ride quality, space-saver spare wheel

Honda logo12 Mar 2003

THE light car revolution has arrived. Led by Jazz, Honda's first sub-compact contender and the first sub-$20,000 car since the Civic CXi was pensioned off in 2000, the local light car segment's ranks were further swelled by the equally innovative Mazda2 just one month later in December 2002.

The sassy Japanese couple join a who's-who of the light car world, including the Euro-designed Holden Barina, Peugeot 206, Renault Clio, Citroen C3 and Volkswagen Polo, plus Japan's Toyota Echo and South Korea's Hyundai Getz and Kia Rio.

So successful has Honda been in packaging the 1.383-metre Jazz that its local arm believes the car has what it takes to also appeal to buyers of lower-end small cars like Focus, Astra, Corolla, Pulsar, Lancer and, inevitably, even Civic. Of course, Jazz's price and equipment list also positions it closer to small Japanese cars than light ones.

Either way, already the two Japanese newcomers have scooped most local awards in the light category.

And after going on sale there in June 2001, Jazz became the top-selling vehicle last year in its home market, where it is known as the Fit.

In the absence of a three-door hatch or four-door sedan version, the single five-door hatchback model comprises three variants, starting with the competitively priced $16,990 GLi manual.

The base Jazz comes well equipped with ABS, twin front airbags, central locking, power mirrors/windows/steering, four-speaker CD audio, basic trip computer, front seatbelt pretensioners and a 61kW/119Nm 1.3-litre four-cylinder alloy engine.

But once $2000 is added for the optional air-conditioning, plus a further $2000 for the optional Continuously Variable (automatic) Transmission, Jazz GLi no longer appears dirt-cheap.

At $19,990, the mid-range Jazz VTi gets a 1.5-litre VTEC-equipped engine with 16 valves instead of eight (but still only a single camshaft) and producing 81kW/143Nm, plus remote central locking and sportier interior trim.

Air-conditioning is also standard while the optional ($2300) auto transmission is this time a seven-speed version of the same CVT, allowing manual shift over-ride via steering wheel buttons for those so inclined.

The flagship VTi-S, as tested here, goes further by offering a full bodykit, fog lights and 15-inch alloy wheels. Priced at $22,490 in five-speed manual guise, Jazz VTi-S rises to $24,790 in auto form, making it line-ball with some more powerful but lesser equipped Euro hatches.

So Jazz has plenty to live up to, especially in top VTi-S spec. But, aesthetically at least, it appears to deliver.

First there's the funky five-door bodystyle that liberates impressive interior head and shoulder room, and appears not unlike the current Civic which shocked many by abandoning its stylish roots and opted for the now accepted tallboy, bonnet-less body shape.

Throw in a sportier grille, deeper bumpers, scalloped side skirts, prominent fog lights and some respectable alloys, and the ultimate Jazz (for now) certainly fits the bill. Of course, standard Jazz features like the roof-mounted rear spoiler, fixed mast antenna and back-swept headlights also look the part and, although Mazda2 features proper door handles, it lacks the more aggressively wedged shape of the Honda.

Inside the VTi-S lies an interior that exudes the ambience of many far more expensive cars.

There's a stylish, well crafted dashboard with typically light, well placed and intuitive controls.

The four-speaker CD sound system has large, tactile rotary knobs, while the three large chrome-rimmed instruments are deep-set beneath a prominently hooded binnacle, each featuring a sporty white background with large, black, easy-to-read increments.

Below the multi-function LCD panel-equipped sound system is the ventilation unit, featuring three large rotary dials, while four overhead grabrails and four cupholders compliment a full-length dashboard shelf, twin-shelf glovebox and sizeable front door bins.

Surprise-and-delight aspects include an auto down and up power driver's window, a driver's seat height adjuster and chequered flag-style black and white woven seat cushion upholstery that is echoed in the door trims, and a similar finish for the lighter coloured centre console.

Overall, the flat-floored, high-roofed, walk-through-style interior presentation has an upmarket, European feel - even if it is a little dark.

But the biggest impression of versatility is provided by the 60/40 split-folding rear seats that can be folded flat - complete with headrests - to create a low-floored, 1720mm long cargo area. Even without folding the rear seats, the rear load space is big enough to accommodate two large suitcases.

The front passenger seat can be fully reclined to increase this space to 2400mm in length, while high-mounted levers allow rear passengers to slide both front seats forward.

There is also a shopping bag hook on the rear of the passenger seat, a rear luggage cover and four tie-down points. The grabhandle-assisted tailgate opens nice and high to reveal a large loading aperture with a flat floor and minimal side intrusions.

Unfortunately, however, the perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel is only height (not reach) adjustable, there is no variable intermittent function for the wipers, the rear armrests are poor, there is no driver's footrest and the VTi-S lacks the six-CD stacker of the less expensive Mazda2 Maxx.

But it makes up for it in other areas - such as performance.

Producing 81kW at 6000rpm and 143Nm of torque at 4800rpm, with fuel consumption claimed at a miniscule 6.0L/100km on the city cycle for the CVT and 6.4 for the manual (and the same 5.2L/100km for both transmissions on the highway), the only way to describe Honda's new generation 1.5 VTEC four is brilliant.

Delivering strong performance right from idle and impressive mid-range torque for its size, the Low Emissions Vehicle-certified engine is also happy to rev well beyond 6000rpm, delivering best-in-class acceleration in the process. In fact, the 1.5 Jazz is quickest in class by a fair margin, but its greatest asset is the driveability provided by its curiously long-stroke engine design.

Curious is also the best way to describe Jazz handling.

The subject of much criticism for what some journalists have described as its too-firm suspension, Jazz can become busy over rough surfaces. Totally at home on smooth tarmac and within, no doubt, European and Japanese city-scapes, it can become somewhat of a handful on chopped up Aussie backroads and city laneways.

It is true the VTi-S has short suspension travel and its ride quality suffers from a lack of rebound damping. But we found it a refreshing set-up in a world of sponge-soft Japanese hatches which, when it all boils down, appeal mainly to young buyers. We suspect the vast majority of young customers who will be attracted to the sporty VTi-S model will appreciate the lack of bodyroll and chassis tautness.

Indeed, combined with brilliant brakes (its rear discs notwithstanding), a better manual gearshift than Mazda2 and super-quick electrically-assisted power steering from S2000, NSX and Civic - which delivers an amazingly tight turning circle (9.4 metres in base spec) - the VTi-S is a highly accomplished sports hatch that will surprise many more powerful cars by its pace, particularly when it comes to cornering.

That would not necessarily be the case if Jazz was set up, like most of its peers, more softly. While older buyers may not appreciate the firm ride, we think the VT-S's taut suspension is a good match for its impressive performance.

As is, the Jazz flagship is a well presented, well packaged pocket rocket with performance to spare, equipment and safety to boast about and impressive build quality and dynamics that may not suit everyone, but will please those with a sporting bent.

Even more so than Mazda2, Jazz proves that spending around $20,000 on a new car no longer automatically banishes the owner to the mundane motorists' melting pot.

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